The Truth Will Set You Free

Telling the truth.

It’s a basic building block of society. A moral imperative. Something we raise our kids to do; something we expect of each other. And yet, in an era where Fake News is a real and troublesome thing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then of how important telling the truth acutally is.

Truthfulness, not surprisingly, is one the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, and while I’ve written about truth before, having the opportunity to view all sorts of virtues through a different lens has kept me interested in exploring the Divine Qualities during the course of this year. And, having spent last year focusing on delight in all its myriad and unexpected forms and often finding joy the tiniest of details, it is equally unsuprising to me that a couple of things have happend to me lately that inspired me to view truthfulness via…ballet.

Yes, ballet.

Relax, please relax — I’m not about to include video footage of myself or anyone else explaining truth via interpretative dance.

Rather, the first oddly inspirational thing that happened was that I didn’t go to the Ballet, even though I had planned to see the Australian Ballet’s final Sydney peformance of Counterpointe. The truth, difficult as it was to admit to myself, was that I was simply too tired to go. Circumstances (think sick kids, a bunch of meetings, various deadlines, a whole pile of domestic detritus and an emergency call to the Fire Brigade when my car unexpectedly started spewing petrol from its undercarriage) conspired against me, and I was exhausted.

So I owned it.

And I didn’t go.

I didn’t go, even though I would have genuinely loved to. I didn’t go, despite the fact it meant I missed out on the first live performance I’d planned to see since COVID hit. I didn’t go, which means I haven’t ventured across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in well over a year.

Most importantly, I didn’t go because I was honest with myself — and, as a result, was dressed for bed before the dancers stepped on stage and was slumbering well before the final curtain fell. I deliberately chose not agonise over my decision to stay home, so I slept soundly. I did not succumb to the sickness my kids had brought home, because I consciously prioritised rest. And that meant…drumroll please…that I was free to do the things I wanted to in the days that followed.

It may not sound like much — going to bed instead of going to the ballet — but, if 2020 taught me anything, it was that the little things are often the ones that really count.

Except when you’re Rudolf Nureyev, and then the BIG things count.

And, of course, that brings me to my second inspirational thing: watching Jacqui and David Morris’ 2018 documentary Nureyev. Even though the film has its flaws (when Rachel Saltz reviewed it for the New York Times she noted in her title “His Life was High Drama: this Film Could Use More”), all of the footage depicting Nureyev is transfixing. Regardless of whether he was performing on stage, being interviewed on television, or simply walking down the street, Nureyev commanded attention — and deservedly so.

Nureyev wasn’t just a star, he was more like a comet blazing through the skies.

His story has everything: childhood poverty, Stalinist persecution, rising fame across the Soviet Union, defection to the West at the height of the Cold War, global stardom, tumultuous relationships on and off stage and, finally, death from an AIDS related illness. He was a man in motion, from the moment of his birth — on a train, en route to Siberia in 1938 — and he lived and danced with an instantly recognisable intensity. The documentary does show some archival footage of Nureyev dancing, rehearsing and teaching, and also includes some memorable still photographs taken by Richard Avedon, but somehow the audience is still left wanting more — more Nureyev, more, more more.

And yet, despite its shortcomings, a couple of moments in the film took my breath away.

The first was during an interview, when Dick Cavett asks Nureyev (resplendent in a snakeskin tunic and matching thigh-high platform boots) whether he remembers the first time he knew he wanted to be a dancer. The camera switches to Nureyev’s face, capturing the exact moment when his dark brown eyes begin to gleam as he nods his head slowly, recollecting the occasion, and no doubt the feeling, of knowing that was what he wanted to do.

The truth in this exchange — not verbalised, but demonstrated — is palpable, and beautiful.

The second was when the film explored Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961, an incredibly dramatic event not particularly well rendered visually in the documentary, but memorable because of the voiceover providing the words of Nureyev himself. Faced with the choice of returning to an uncertain future (and possible imprisonment) in the Soviet Union or remaining in Paris, Nureyev calls on the one person he thinks may be able to help him: French socialite Clara Saint, who at the time was engaged to the son of the French Minister for Culture. It is Clara who alerts the gendarmes at the airport that there is a Soviet dancer who may be wanting to defect, and it is also she who explains to Nureyev what he has to do in order to gain their protection.

You have to tell them what you want to do.

In other words: truth.

You have to tell the truth.

Nureyev then tells the French police:

I want to stay here.

And with those words, the truth set Nureyev free.

Sometimes, truth can be found in the tiniest things.

Other times, it’s in the very greatest things of all.

Sweet Charity

Almsgiving.

The word seems such a far cry from fearlessness, the first of the Divine Qualities from the Bhagavad Gita I set out to explore in this, my year of journeying through twenty-six qualities and how they may (or may not?!) apply to me and my life.

Fearlessness is exciting: it shouts in triumph, and I strongly suspect it has wings. Big, powerful wings.

But almsgiving? It’s reserved. It feels far more likely to speak in a whisper, and to shuffle along in the shadows…

For me, the mere mention of the word almsgiving immediately conjures vivid images of darkly hooded monks holding empty wooden bowls, moving in silent procession along dimly lit cloisters. It seems archaic, and somehow austere, not to mention (from where I’m sitting) very Catholic. Almsgiving always reminds me of religion classes in primary school, when our teachers felt the need to regurgitate the same explanation each and every year when they distributed our cardboard Project Compassion boxes that Lent is a time we were meant to give alms, not arms: the Good Lord wanted our money, not our body parts.

I mean, I get it — giving to those less fortunate than ourselves is part and parcel of spiritual traditions the world over. It’s what makes us decent human beings. It’s coins slipped quietly into donation boxes, dollars slid silently onto collection plates, online donations made without fanfare or fuss from the privacy of personal computer. And it’s important — I genuinely believe that.

But even so, almsgiving is not particularly…exciting?

And even though I did not — and still do not — plan to make any of these dives into the Divine Qualities a specifically religious exercise, it occurred to me that perhaps I need to shed yet more of the baggage I have been hauling around since suriving thirteen years of Catholic school?!

In the light of this conclusion, I sought out the secular — and where better to turn than to the silver screen, and to a beautiful, whimsical romantic comedy released twenty years ago this year,  Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, which is better known to English speaking audiences simply as Amélie.

I watched this (still delightful) film with my elder daughter a few weekends ago, and was struck by the fact that the title character, Amélie, is always trying to do the right thing by people. Being shy, she does so secretly, surreptitiously and — in the case of breaking into a neighbour’s apartment — downright stealthily. And even though Amélie doesn’t always get things quite right (let’s face it: the break in is completely illegal), for the most part she makes a genuine effort to improve the lives of the people around her, all while attempting to conquer her own feeling of isolation.

Weirdly, Amélie could almost be said to be about almsgiving in action: as Amélie cultivates generosity towards others, her insular world begins to open up. Without giving too much of the plot away, over the course of the film Amélie befriends a lonely old man, Raymond Dufayel, who lives in her apartment building, painting a copy of the same Renoir picture year after year. She walks a blind man across a street, rapidly telling him all the things she can see so he may get an impression of the hustle and bustle of Montmatre. She hatches a unique plan involving a garden gnome to encourage her father to broaden his horizons. She stands up for Lucien, the grocer’s assistant, who is regularly ridiculed by his boss. She reunites people with long lost possessions. And, ultimately, she falls in love and — with encouragement from Monsieur Dufayel — finds the courage to pursue Nino, the man she has fallen for, and to give him her heart.

Watching Amélie made me realise several things.

That almsgiving at its simplest and most perfunctory is making a donation of money or a possession we no longer require.

With greater thought and commitment, almsgiving may involve giving our services, our intellectual property, our time. You might prepare a hot meal for someone, or draft a letter for a person who doesn’t share your particular professional expertise (whether that be legal or financial or whatever), or you may offer to drive someone somewhere even though it’s out of your way.

Almsgiving doesn’t have to be as exciting as fearlessness for it to be fulfilling. And I think I can safely let go of the idea that almsgiving is something that has to be done — like it seemed to, with no small amount of drudgery, every Lent, every year when I was at school. It’s a choice, and the more thought and better the intention behind the choice, the more fulfilling the act.

Ultimately, there is true power doing things, however small, with great love.

Mind yourselves,

BJx